'You can't be lonely and be a healthy person.' How seniors can combat isolation
By Kay Manning
Dec 12, 2017 | 6:00 AM
Loneliness during aging is a growing problem as 1 in 4 of the 76 million baby boomers could become isolated. Here are five tips for promoting social engagement among seniors, courtesy of the Global Council on Brain Health.
Kathy Seguin is an older adult — she really dislikes labels such as senior citizen and elder orphan — who was a prime candidate for the kind of isolation that increasingly is considered injurious to mental and physical health and a challenge for communities across the country.
She lost her husband in 2012 when she was 59 and living in New York.
“I knew it was the start of a new chapter,” Seguin said, and as part of trying to figure out what to do next, she attended a weekend workshop in Asheville, N.C., on finding your passions. She decided to move there, despite knowing virtually no one.
Her loss of a loved one, scattered adult stepchildren, and sudden uprooting put her at risk of becoming disengaged from society. That didn’t happen, Seguin said, because she discovered her apartment is three-quarters of a mile along a forest trail from the Reuter Family YMCA, where she now goes six days a week for group classes — no solitary workouts for her — and to volunteer in the youth development center, among other activities.
“I wanted to meet people. I’d read that we’re social beings and we need to be for our health,” Seguin said. “I enjoy giving back to my Y and relish the opportunity to socialize even more by interacting with babies, toddlers and young children. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, saying, ‘I love you,’ and ‘Will you play with me,’ and hug so freely.”
She’s quite thoughtful about isolation, because the number aging solo is expected to grow to one in four of the 76 million baby boomers, as many as 19 million seniors could become isolated. That number includes older adults who have out-of-state family, limited connections in retirement, and mobility issues.
The likelihood of isolation is prompting researchers and groups like the YMCA and AARP to focus on ways to keep individuals involved in their communities. It’s considered a public health issue because of the toll isolation takes on seniors.
“There is no question that being socially isolated has proven to have negative health outcomes,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of the massive senior citizens organization.
She points to research showing prolonged loneliness and isolation can equal the health risks of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and that 26 percent of people have increased risk of death due to loneliness. (Isolation is a quantifiable condition, while loneliness is a perception or feeling.)
“We have a vision of a world with no senior poverty,” Ryerson said, adding that since marginalized populations are more at risk for isolation, particular attention is being paid to those with vision or hearing loss, those who have lost loved ones and social connections, and those not able to live independently.
“We want to learn about effective interventions. We would want to be able to grow an intervention in its level of connectivity and thereby increase outcomes,” of the physical and mental well-being of seniors, she said.
Michelle Carlson, a researcher and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, said more attention is being paid to whether changes in behavior can positively affect cognitive health because, despite the expenditure of millions or even billions of dollars on pharmacological ways to delay and treat Alzheimer’s disease, “no meaningful drug to offer people” has been found.
“We know that parts of the brain will atrophy if they’re not used,” Carlson said. “When we need more cognition, we get less,” because aging people lose their work networks, their families and friends have health issues, and their children move farther away.
“We have to get people off their couches, give them a reason to get up,” she said. And while “we can’t say social isolation causes dementia,” enough is known about what is good and bad for the brain that strategies can be developed as preventative measures, she said.
“Being valued and helpful to others is part of our makeup. We’re designed to be social,” Carlson said.
She and other researchers directed the two-year Baltimore Experience Corps Trial, in which the effects on cognition of seniors spending 15 hours a week tutoring public school students were compared with that of volunteers doing other tasks. In a 2015 report, men in the intergenerational activity showed an increase in volume of the parts of the brain associated with memory, and so did women, but to a lesser extent. Both groups of volunteers experienced improved cognition, though why the school helpers got more benefit is unclear, Carlson said.
“Because the volunteers were re-energized and re-plugged into their community, we think their life trajectories were changed. They don’t just go back and plop on the couch,” she said.
The goal was documenting the concept of generativity — purpose or making a lasting contribution — which has been linked to reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes and cognitive impairment, and increased tendency to pursue health screenings and exercise. Why those with higher purpose are more proactive with their health is not yet clear, researchers say.
AARP and YMCA of the USA have teamed up to go further, to see what besides volunteerism might be done to stem isolation. Ten YMCAs around the country were awarded grants in August to try new ways to reach out to seniors. The results, still coming in, will be compiled into a list of best practices.
In Asheville, the Disrupt Aging Community Health Challenge was launched in September with participants able to collect points toward membership in the “healthy aging hall of fame” in four categories: physical health — joining an outdoor activity, taking a group exercise class or enrolling in a falls prevention program; social health — volunteering with Meals on Wheels, attending a concert, or joining a committee on housing or transportation; community health — volunteering in any number of organizations; and intellectual health — taking or teaching a workshop, or attending a caregiver support group.
Diane Saccone has facilitated requests for the Y in Asheville to offer more chances for socialization by scheduling 58 trips this year, up from three in 2016. Still popular are traditional and specialized wellness classes.
“It’s neat to see men over 85 come in with their arms crossed, not participating, but be chatty Cathys by the end,” said Saccone, director of healthy aging initiatives.
She remembers a 92-year-old man who was signed up for classes by his daughter. He was covered with bruises from sleeping on the floor in front of the bathroom to help his wife, who had Alzheimer’s.
“He never went out,” Saccone said. “He came back to thank us for saving his life.”
In Burlington, Vt., the Y’s original proposal was for 25 nonmembers to spend two months working with a personal trainer, taking a cooking class, joining walks, and trying out electric bikes, all for free. The slots filled up in 24 hours. Another 25 spots promoted on Facebook filled up in 12 hours, said Ryan Torres, director of community health initiatives.
In the town of 42,000, many people volunteer, he said, but there are barriers — lack of transportation, and snow and ice that cause a high number of falls, leading to seniors staying home in the winter.
Denise Schomody is a wellness coach at the Burlington Y who knows “you can’t be lonely and be a healthy person,” and while she said the program’s two months wouldn’t allow for much physical change, “it was long enough to jump-start a part of (participants’) lives not engaged in before.”
To meet the universal demand for more social activities, Cindy McDermott, vice president of membership and programs for YMCA for the USA, said local Y’s are looking at how facilities are designed and creating preferred parking, modified equipment, and gathering spaces other than hallways to encourage use and conversation. And they’re coordinating with community groups in places such as libraries, senior centers and shopping malls to provide programming, she said.
Though retired, Seguin has discovered “time passes quickly,” so she “puts herself out there,” going to concerts, on hikes and to classes.
She’s happy with the life she’s carved out, saying, “I’m getting older, but I’m not old.”